Thursday, December 4, 2014

Digital Portfolios Please...

Happy Thursday everyone:)

I just returned from pulling my students' writing portfolios from our ELA department, and I got to thinking.....

How do we get schools/districts to start using digital portfolios??

I believe we must promote digital portfolios as much as possible in order to keep better track of student writing and use it more effectively as data for planning.  This would also make the writing more relevant for the students, and allow them to access it anywhere.

Down and dirty:
Data in all shapes and forms is critical when it comes to effectively planning lessons and addressing student needs.  While it should not drive all decision making, it should play an integral role in the development of such.  I believe we do the students a great disservice when we file away their writing and never look at it.  If the writing were housed digitally teachers could access the date and use it to plan before the school year begins.  What a relief and help this would be.

Student buy-in.  We all want it, especially when it comes to writing.  We need our students to be effective communicators.  How are we supposed to accomplish this if they can't see their own growth, analyze and discuss their own weaknesses and strengths?  Digital portfolios would allow them to share with family, friends, and students across the world.  Now that is an authentic audience.  Students can comment in real time and work when absent.

One of the best things would be the fact that their work could travel with them anywhere. Wouldn't it be nice to get a new student, and have an idea of where they are at in their learning/thinking/writing process.

Your classes aren't one-to-one?  Mine either.  Sometimes I take my students to the library and utilize the computers in there.  Most of the time though I use the few devices I have.  Hmm..8 at this time.  I just had two die on me:(
The teacher might also have students write their rough drafts and then type what they have on the computer.  This tends to work well since students work at various paces.
I also borrow devices from the library, and my colleagues.  Students can check out devices from the library too, and many of them do.
It might seem impossible, but there are ways to work around not having a one-to-one system.
Another idea is for the the teacher/school/district to start off with a minimum number of items housed.  This would allow for the staggering of the use of devices.
I also apply for grants through each year and ask for Chromebooks.  I figure I can eventually build a one-to-one class.  Hopefully:)

I know change is difficult and there are a lot of ideas/trends being knocked around, but this is a concept educators must implement soon.

 Here is a more structured conversation on the topic courtesy of Holly Clark's twitter feed (if you don't follow her you should!).

Keep up the good fight!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How your toughest class can stretch you the most..

Last week I had the great fortune to fail, and fail miserably with a lesson.  It was during a 90 minute class at the end of the day that my epic failure occurred.
I was attempting to teach a lesson that had gone quite smoothly the rest of the day.  However, about 30 minutes into class and nothing was getting accomplished.  I was frustrated, the students were frustrated and it was just a melting pot of anxiety, disappointment and sheer annoyance for all.
Class ended and I was extremely upset.
 "What is wrong with this class?!" I thought.  All my other classes had completed the lesson, all my other classes did the work. "They are just lazy."  I was supposed to stay after and help some students, but instead I left in order to decompress and avoid taking out my frustrations on anyone else.

This was the best decision I made.  Like most of us, I just couldn't stop thinking about what a disaster that class had been.  Slowly I went back through the lesson and thought about what went on.  And then it hit me.  The kids weren't lazy, the lesson just plain sucked.  This year I went from teaching all co-teach classes, to teaching only one (7th).  Up until this day my students had been working with rote activities that required little autonomy.  So why on earth was I surprised that when I set this mixed level class free they flailed?  The answer is because I wasn't being true to my own pedagogy, but instead trying to fit myself into a box and with it the lesson and the entire class.  In doing so I failed to give the lesson and the class the consideration they deserved.
As I began looking back I realized that this year I have focused more on trying to prepare my students for the test as best as possible.  In doing so I tried to adopt the beliefs and strategies of others.  Some of these are founded on research and well thought out ideas, while others are founded on fear and archaic systems.
Why?  Nobody forced me, nobody threatened me.  However, like many of my fellow educators I live in a world where "the test" drives a lot of the thinking and doing. I became hungry for my students to succeed, for them to beat the very beast scratching at our doors. What a mistake.
Last year I tried a number of new things, and watched my students struggle beautifully as they worked through problems and built their own knowledge base.  But this year I started off on the opposite foot, and it was the worst mistake ever.
After that 7th period class I realized that I needed to be true to my own pedagogical beliefs.  As a trusted colleague once told me, "as long as your ideas are based on sound pedagogy, then the learning will occur".  She was right.  I have returned to my messy, mistake driven learning and things are as they once were.  7th period is still a toughie and requires an ample amount of attention and flexibility on my part.
But I now realize that they are my best class.  For had they not challenged me when all my other classes were just doing, then I would have never come to my afore mentioned realization.  I love them because they keep me grounded on what matters.  And what matters are my students and their learning.  The test will not go away, and there will be other failures (I hope).  But 7th period helped remind me why I teach in the first place, because it is challenging and it allows me to challenge others.  I am given the task of preparing them to thrive in the 21st century work force.  I am tasked with creating innovators and leaders.  I can't do that in a box.
So don't discount the class that holds your feet to the fire, because they just might save you from losing yourself.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Share: You just might keep someone in the Game

I have been meaning to share a post on teaching inference for some time now. Extra time seems as elusive as ever,but I am determined to start blogging on a regular basis.  More importantly, I am determined to start sharing ideas, questions and problems.

A few years ago my colleague and I were pouring over our student data.  We found that many of our students struggle to make high level inferences.  Fast forward three years later, and we notice this is a recurring problem.
Which reminds me of something else I want to speak on.  There is a common dialogue I hear among some educators when faced with this situation.
It goes a little something like this:
"Ugh..weren't they supposed to learn this in plug in any grade you like.  Why should I have to teach this?"

Let me repeat..this is among SOME and not ALL.  And, as an educator I get the frustration one feels when wanting to move forward rather than look back.  This situation often forces teachers to work with content or skills less familiar, it requires more work, and naturally leads to more stress. This creates the negative relationship most educators have with said situation.

The world of education is changing drastically, and so with it the student body.  Teachers much constantly work to close gaps, make new connections and rebuild fractured intellectual structures.
And so, this is why I want to share.   I hope I encourage some of you to share.  Also, please tell me how I can improve on lessons!!
I think we can help each other feel less intimidated by our jobs and the idea of teaching the old or unknown.  But, we can only do this if we make our task less daunting.  I see great educators come and go all the time.  Some leave forever because the job has just become too much.  So here is my first step at keeping my peers healthy and in the game.  I hope you can find a way to use this.

Now to the lesson: Created by myself and Shelby Acevedo
I am just going to outline it and tell you about the resources.  If you need any extra details please let me know.
Objective: Students will understand what an inference is.  Students will understand how to make and inference and will know the difference between "zooming in" and "zooming out".

Resources Needed: Zoom:
See the Ocean:  This book is out of print but can still be purchased.  It is wonderful!

Step 1:  I begin the lesson by posting a picture from CNN's Week in Pictures.  This is a great place to find interesting pictures that really engage the students.  I pair it with the question "What has happened to this person or what is going on?"  The students are given 3-5 minutes to generate a response.  I then let them share. We discuss how they know what they know.  We leave it at that.

Step 2:  I put the kids in groups of about 4.  I tell them that they will be competing against each other in a challenge.  They are told to assign a scribe, and that they will have to work together quietly to figure something out.  Now, if you have an administrator that insists they all be "doing something" (which they are..thinking, practicing effective communication, analyzing images) then you can have them all write.  I like to focus on the thinking and discussing, so I assign one scribe.

Step 3: Begin by going through the book page by page, and make sure you include the cover.
Ask them "What is this?"  I give them 1 minute to discuss and write an answer down.  Repeat over and over.  It is so fun to listen to the kids.

Step 4: Debrief with the students.  It is very important to talk about the process.  I like to go to a particular page (one with girl and play village, they always refer to her as Snow White). I explain that what they were doing was making an inference or analyzing something. I tell them it is the same thing we have been doing with texts.  I remind them that analysis is just breaking something down.  I then reference the warm-up and we discuss briefly.

We discuss how they immediately applied background knowledge, but that they were zooming in on the girl.  We then talk about zooming out and looking at the entire page and then making a guess at what is on it.  I tell them that they do the same thing when reading and analyzing a text.
And this is when they have their aha moment. Most are able to make the connection and realize that they often zoom in and focus on one thing without applying it to context when analyzing text.

  • The group who correctly identified the most pictures wins candy.  

The first year we taught this lesson, and then we then moved to See the Ocean.  The students read the story and were asked to find parts of the story where they could infer that the character was blind.  There are many hints.  Some students figure it out right away, but others don't get it till the end of the book.  However, the text is accessible and the students can focus on the skill more easily.  I seem to have deleted my old file, but it would have looked something like this..

Text Says: When she could talk, she asked endless questions about the ocean.  

“How old is it? How big? How deep? What’s the color? Why the waves?  Why the sound?”
Inference: The story says they travel to the ocean often, but Nellie still asks a lot of questions. In particular she asks "what color". This is weird and makes me thinks she can't see or something. If she can, why would she ask what color it is.
I think one year I had them identify and analyze 2, and then they had to get with a peer and take notes on theirs. I really need to start recording like my colleague Del Villar.

Now I reference zooming in and zooming out with my students when we are revising and editing their writing. I even have students say "Ah..ya. I zoomed in.."
Keep up the good fight:)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

WebQuest: A useful tool in any classroom

Good morning!

I wanted to share a tool that I have found useful in the frontloading of information and the building of background knowledge.

My students come to me with varied levels of what most people consider traditional background knowledge.  I have students new to the country, some who have been in and out of school their entire lives, and some that have limited exposure to books and news.  I often find that this is one of the biggest barriers when it comes to my students' ability to read and understand a text.  As we all know, making connections via background knowledge is an integral part of the reading process.  Couple this with a student body that struggles to finish a short story, let alone a book and you have a recipe for confusion and frustration.

So, last year I decided I was going to teach a book.  I am usually a fan of short stories (my next blog post!), but I decided I wanted to teach Night.  We are fortunate enough to have a Holocaust museum here in the city, and I knew I could take some kids there.  So naturally, this book seemed like a no-brainer and I began tackling the lesson plan.  While sitting, staring and wondering how I was going to get my kids into the idea of reading, I remembered a Shakespeare WebQuest I used in class a few years back.  BAM...this is what I was going to do.  I began looking online for a Holocaust WebQuest, but I couldn't seem to find one that I thought would serve my needs. What is an educator to do then? Get creative!
I made my own using Google Sites..

Now to the actual point of my post.  What this site allowed me to do was address the needs of multiple learners.  While thinking about what to include and how to engage students, I decided to just try and hit all learning styles.  I made sure to include visual and audio.  I then collaborated with a colleague on how to best assess their learning along the way.  She suggested open-ended questions that required them to think deeply about what they read/heard/viewed.  While this all seems like a lot of work (and it was), it is sooo worth it.
I took the students to the lab and gave them the link.  I then instructed them that they needed to read the instructions and speak with a peer before asking me "what do I do?".  For the most part they could figure it out and began their journey.  I walked around monitoring students and was surprised at what I heard.  Students were gasping and actually talking about what they were seeing or hearing.  Some students were crying, while others felt compelled to tell me how angry they were.  This lesson quickly became one of few that will stay with me forever as a game changer (hopefully I experience more as I grow).  It seems like such a simple tool, but my students (some who truly had no knowledge of this historical event) taught me how powerful a well designed WebQuest can be.

  • This is not a lesson for those who do not want students to be frustrated by the way.  I believe that there is a level of functional frustration necessary to learning.  If we are to create critical thinkers and problem solvers, then we must let them struggle to some degree.  Because many of my students had little experience with tech, they sat for a bit working through the frustration.  In the end they figured out how to navigate the lesson and get their work done.  I think this is important to remember when giving students something new and a bit challenging.  
Skills addressed by the lesson:
21st Century learning skills:
Digital Literacy
Skilled Communication
Problem Solving
Collaborate with Others
Other Skills Addressed:
Engage in Meaningful Discourse
Build background knowledge

When it came time to read the book I felt that the students were equipped with some of the tools needed to help them digest and process the text at a more critical level.  I believe the WebQuest also worked on a psychological level to help them feel more confident in attacking the book.  There is a sense of helplessness one feels when they know they don't know.  And contrary to what some believe, our students are usually more keenly aware of this than we are.  
We read the book and it was glorious:)

I think a wonderful extension or entirely new activity would be to have students create a WebQuest after reading a specific text.  I love the idea of letting them create and demonstrate their knowledge. Thinking this might be in my next unit.....

Here is a helpful sight if you want a clearer explanation of what a WebQuest is:

Do you have any great WebQuest tools or ideas?  If so, please share away.  Together we can foster a new generation of learners:)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Does Attribution Really Matter?

I would argue that it does, especially in our line of work.  However, I have recently learned that this is not a mindset pervasive in our world.  And my question is, "Why not?"

I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented people I've ever known, and while you might think this has something to do with loyalty or friendship, it doesn't.  I think one of the reasons I was drawn to teaching is the fact that is requires constant self-improvement, collaboration, research, learning, failing, leading, and know..all that other stuff.  Because of the nature of our work, most of us are fortunate to work with creative, intellectual people who truly value what we do as teachers, and learners.

Unfortunately, most people outside the realm of education have little (or a muddied) understanding  of the lengths we go to create the optimal learning environment for our students.  An amazing classroom is not the immaculate conception of a specific school or administration, but a Darwinian endeavor in exploration and curation of ideas.

So why then, are there educators out there who say "I don't need to give credit to anyone?"

I find this to be quite disheartening.  If we don't respect and honor what we do, then who will?  It is up to us to make sure that the world understands the toil beneath the books.  We are the creators of intellect, the great architects of dissonance, questioning, and the purveyors of knowledge.

But who will buy from us if we are stealing from each other???

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Power of the Question

The school year is upon us and I am very excited to get back to work.  I was not able to get as many work-related things done as I had hoped, but was able to do a little reflecting while lounging in the sweltering Houston heat.
The one thing I could not stop thinking about was how my students had struggled to come up with questions during our PBL unit last Spring.  I thought I had prepared them well for this activity, and we had discussed the importance of questioning the world around you.  (By the way, this is a great example of why failing is also so important, especially for us teachers.  When we fail we grow, and challenge ourselves.  Another revolution I guess)
But, my colleagues (the amazing Karen Justl&Shelby Acevedo) and I sat in agony while working with students. Many could only come up with closed-ended questions, surface level questions, or worse... the dreaded blank stare accompanied by NO QUESTION/S at all!!!!
Our minds were blown, and we all decided it was time to start thinking about the importance of questioning in the classroom.  After all, all great thinkers question the world around them , and aren't these what all educators strive to create?
So,  here I am sharing in the hopes that I can inspire others to lead a questioning revolution.  What might this look like you ask?  Well...I actually don't know.  This will be my first year to try and create one in my own class.  I teach 10th grade ELA, so it is a natural fit and easy to implement.
If you are wondering why we should start a revolution, then take a gander at this article.

If it can't convince you, then I don't know what will.

The beauty of questioning is that relates to all content areas, and lends itself to a wonderful variety of activities.  If you aren't ready to tie it to all of your curriculum, then consider implementing it in a Makerspace or Genius Hour activity.

As for me, I consider questioning an integral part of literacy and will be teaching my students this. I will be using the Right Question Formulation Technique throughout the year with various texts/media.  The following link has everything you need to implement the strategy:

Let me know if you join in. I would love to hear what you are doing, and how it is going.
I will post regularly on our progress, and hope you all do the same.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What did I get myself into???

This is the question I have been asking myself lately.  As you can see, I have not had much time to post about what we have been doing.  But...we have been working hard, and learning so much.

A lot of my students are struggling to find platforms for their products or creations.  Some of it is due to laziness, while others just don't know how to navigate the web.
I myself have found it very time consuming to locate and curate resources.  While there exists infinite sites and apps, the uses for each particular product are finite.  Figuring out which works best for a particular product and audience is proving to be a challenging  part of this endeavor.
However, we are moving forward.  And I am hoping to curate a somewhat specific list..if time allows.

I have watched a lot of my students blossom and find a new sense of ownership in their work, as well as a new sense of identity as a student.  The evolution of this student identity has been very interesting to watch.  I have a student who feels very passionately about the topic of discipline vs. reward within the school system. He is usually very vocal and has no problem writing essays, but he has struggled to find a way to send his message out into the world in another format.  He wants desperately to write, but I have challenged him to push his boundaries.

I had a discussion with one student yesterday who had changed her topic.  She had a wonderful topic that she felt very strongly about, but she had no confidence in her ability to change her own voice/tone.
 "I don't think I can say this in a nice way.." she said.
"What!!! This is exactly why you are doing this.  This is what you have to learn to do.  This is a life skill.  So  do it.  Here, and now.  Not when you are in an interview and blurt out something that sounds crass or antagonistic."

What I have seen is that they are being forced to be an active participant in not just their learning, but their own thinking.   The student if forced to consider ideas/topics from so many angles.  This PBL has really flipped the script on their cognitive process.  So much of what they are used to is the standard sit and get method.  Which I did for a long time, and I totally get.  The older method is what I knew and what I learned, but this method is so much better!!!

This Friday the students will conduct their first peer critiques.  I am anxious to see how this goes.  One of the things I have noticed while working on this unit, is that the students' soft skills just aren't there.  I began the year addressing active listening, effective communication, working in teams, etc.  But, these skill were usually exchanged from student to teacher.  I am realizing that in the beginning of the year I need to have them work together to right away.  Looking back I know that I feared a lack of control and had a fear of how "messy" it might look.  However, I have done my students a disservice by asking them to use these skills before they have had a chance to fully develop them.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


We are about a week into our unit, and things are going fairly smoothly.  Most of the students are engaged and working hard. There are the usual suspects who will stop at nothing to try and do nothing. 

Some things to note:
This is the first time I have seen kids get excited about my feedback using comments in Google docs.  We have done this before, but their seemed to be little reaction.  I am wondering if this is because they care about what they are doing, and so they actually take time to read the feedback.  Or, is it because this time they actually paid attention, and they have time to read/respond in class.  Maybe a combo of both???

I have had students say, "I am confused, can I just write an essay?"  And my mind was officially blown.  All year I had to do magic rain dances in the dark to elicit any enthusiasm about writing....and now you claim you would PREFER to WRITE!!!  Ahhhhh.....  I took a seat next to each of these kids immediately and we talked about what was really going on.  They were simply confused, or found the idea of creating too hard.  We are now working together to build their creative confidence and find a platform/format that will work for their project.

I am learning that they are accustomed to having so little choice/control in their learning, that for some of them the idea is overwhelming.  They seem to shut down and revert to the only thing they know.  While this is human nature for many of us when faced with change or something new, it makes me wonder what I can do differently in the future to help them find this less difficult.  I feel that I am experiencing my own learning revolution right along with my students (and I am loving it).

Some things I am struggling with are:
Finding the time to assist students individually in each class.
Not giving them too much support
Assessing student productivity on a daily basis

My students will be conducting interviews with elementary students today!!  I am very excited about this collaboration and will be posting soon.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Diving into PBL

Hello fellow teachers/learners,

This week my students (10th grade co-teach) and I began working on our first true project based assignment.  And all I can say is... WOW!  I have been extremely impressed by their enthusiasm and amazing ideas.  I have to admit that I was initially worried about their ability to come up with viable concepts on their own, but most have been inventive and inspirational.

There was a lot of prep on my part in regards to structure and time frame,  all of which I think is imperative to rolling out a lesson of this type.  But, with the help of trusted colleagues I was able to create a system that I hope works.  Keep your fingers crossed please:)

Together my colleagues and I came up with a menu of ideas to help give the students a place to start from, and some examples of what the end products might look like.  They were also given a Project Pitch Form to help them flesh out their creation. I modeled the form after one from Manor ISD.  They are a great place to look for inspiration and logistics regarding PBL.

I briefly went over the menu and PPF with my students, and then set them free.  They were basically told to create a project they would want to share with others.  Their job would be to come up with the product, and  a specific format for audience consumption.  While some went straight to the menu for ideas, others immediately new what they wanted to do.  My co-teacher and I simply walked around and helped students get what was in their brain on paper.  I find that this is a big struggle for them, and I am hoping this unit can help them build confidence and strength in this area.  We shall see...